Expert Panel: Aspartame Sweetener Safe

No Cancer, Seizure, Obesity, Birth Defect Risk Seen in Aspartame Studies

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 11, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 11, 2007 - An expert panel says it's confident there's no health risk from aspartame -- the artificial sweetener used in thousands of food products.

"We conclude aspartame is very safe," panel coordinator Bernadene Magnuson, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland, said at a news conference.

Do the panel findings lay to rest all concerns over aspartame safety?

"We hope so," panel chairman William J. Waddell, MD, professor and chair emeritus of toxicology at the University of Louisville, said at the news conference.

Not so, says Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"I think this review is totally unreliable," Jacobson tells WebMD. "If you allow me to pick the jury, I'll tell you the result. This is a committee made up of people incapable of finding that a commercial product poses a risk."

The panel was convened by the Burdock Group, a consulting firm serving the food, dietary supplement, and cosmetics industries. It was funded by Ajinomoto Company Inc., a major maker of aspartame.

However, Ajinomoto did not choose the panel members. Panel members were not told the name of the company funding the study until the study was submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

"I have no qualms of who funded the study because of how it was set up," Magnuson said. "We ensured there was no correspondence between the panel and the sponsor, and we were free to make any conclusions we wanted. They truly wanted to know the answer themselves and hopefully to have the question [of aspartame safety] settled."

But Jacobson notes that the panel was highly accepting of studies finding aspartame safe -- and highly critical of those linking aspartame to possible health risks.

"They say Ajinomoto paid for the study but researchers didn't know who paid. Well, they knew it was industry. And some of these people are longstanding industry consultants," Jacobson says. "You get what you pay for. What we need are high-quality studies, such as those that could be done by the National Toxicology Program."

(Do you have thoughts about aspartame? Discuss them with others on WebMD's Diet Clubs: 25 - 50 Lbs to Lose message board.)

Aspartame Widely Used

Aspartame is found in the low-calorie sweetener Equal and in many other sugar-free products under the brand name NutraSweet. It is the second best-selling nonsugar sweetener in the world.

Just last June, an Italian research group led by Morando Soffritti, MD, issued a warning that aspartame causes cancer in rats. As it did when the Soffritti group issued its first report, the CSPI petitioned the FDA to investigate aspartame. The FDA has declined to act.

Now the Burdock panel has reviewed every existing animal and human study of aspartame -- including a detailed analysis of the Italian group's findings. It finds many flaws in the Soffritti group's work.

"The [Soffritti] study had numerous methodological and interpretation errors," Magnuson said. "It provided no credible evidence that aspartame is carcinogenic."

Jacobson admits the study had flaws but says it raised nagging questions the panel dismissed, but did not answer.

Over the years, there have been suggestions that aspartame might cause brain tumors, brain damage, birth defects, headaches, and impaired cognitive function. The panel found no convincing evidence linking aspartame to these or other human health issues.

"The panel concludes aspartame is a well-characterized, high-intensity sweetener, thoroughly studied, with a long history of safe use in the food supply," Magnuson said. "We found no effect on cancer or neuronal function. Overall, we thought aspartame could reduce the caloric content of a wide variety of foods."

The panel's 100-page report appears in the September issue of Critical Reviews in Toxicology.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Magnuson, B. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, September 2007; vol: 37 pp. 629-727. News conference with William J. Waddell, MD, professor and chair emeritus of toxicology, University of Louisville. Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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